Posts Tagged ‘Romano Guardini’

Books briefly noted

September 12, 2022

Choral Masterworks
A Listener’s Guide
Michael Steinberg
(Oxford, 2005)
321 p.

This is the sort of book that gives hours of pleasure far out of proportion to its length. Michael Steinberg has made a judicious selection of over 40 great choral pieces, and it serves as a wonderful roadmap for an extended listening project. For each piece he gives us a little background on its composition and premiere, and then an overview of its structure and content, without getting too technical.

The book includes the top-shelf masterpieces you’d expect: Bach’s Passions and the B Minor Mass, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mozart’s Requiem, and Handel’s Messiah. There are also a large raft of unsurprising — that is, wholly deserving — pieces such as requiems by Verdi and Faure and Britten and Brahms, and several of Haydn’s Masses, and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. In a few cases the composer I expected to find was present, but not the piece I expected; for example, I’d have included Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, but Steinberg chose his cantata The Bells; I was happy to have a reason to hear it again, but I’d still chose the Vigil. The book highlights several lesser known masterpieces like Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Dvorak’s Stabat Mater. A few of the pieces were entirely new to me — Roger Sessions’ When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Charles Wuorinen’s very interesting Genesis, Luigi Dallapiccola’s Canti di pregonia, and Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. Of these, it was only the last that made a big impression on me. The composer with the most number of pieces included? Stravinsky!

Steinberg has written several other, similarly conceived volumes, one on symphonies and another on concertos. I enjoyed this one enough to consider launching more listening projects around those books in the future.

***

The Fantasy of the Middle Ages
An Epic Journey Through Imaginary Medieval Worlds
Larisa Grollemond and Bryan C. Keene
(J. Paul Getty, 2022)
142 p.

Put together to accompany an exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, this is a centuries-wide survey of the many ways in which the visual arts — painting, book illustration, and film, for the most part — have been inspired by medieval styles and sources. Thus we get chapters illustrating how medieval characters, like knights, monks, and kings, have been portrayed in popular culture, or how medieval settings have been associated over the years with magic and the fantastic, or, more specifically, how portrayals of legends of King Arthur have evolved. It’s quite fascinating, and it makes clear that medieval sources have been a persistent source of enrichment for a very long time, and in a great many ways, in art both high and low. If you love medieval art, it’s a very pleasant book in which to browse.

Like most things in a museum, the book is for looking at, and the pictures and illustrations are gorgeously done, in high quality reproductions. There is also a text that wends its way between the pictures, and it’s fine, not too academic, but overly beholden to faddish notions of diversity, etc. Still, it does not overshadow the skill and thoughtfulness with which the visuals have been curated and presented.

***

The Death of Socrates
Romano Guardini
(Sheed & Ward, 1948)
177 p.

Guardini reads and comments on the four “Death of Socrates” dialogues of Plato: Euthyphro, in which Socrates, on his way to stand trial, talks with Euthyphro about the nature of piety; Apology, in which Socrates stands trial and defends himself against the charges brought against him; Crito, in which Socrates, in his jail cell, is offered an opportunity to escape and uses it to reflect on the nature of justice; and, finally, Phaedo, in which, on the day of his death, Socrates discusses with a group of young men the nature of the soul, of the Forms, and of knowledge.

The book takes the form of a commentary in which Plato’s text is interleaved with Guardini’s reflections upon it. I had high hopes, being under the impression that Guardini’s writing is generally worth the while, but on balance I was disappointed. The dialogues themselves are wonderful, of course, but the commentary didn’t add much for me, being either redundant or kind of . . . gassy? The book was for a long time out-of-print, though it has recently been brought back by the good people at Cluny Media. Other readers may fare better than I did.